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D.A. Outlines Plan to Make Bounced Checks Rebound on Writers

July 10, 1988|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

A county program that helps merchants recover the funds for bounced checks and sends first-time offenders to check-writing school was expanded to nine Southeast-area cities last week.

In a press conference Thursday morning at the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said the Bad Check Enforcement Program has proved its worth in nearly two years of experimental operation in the San Gabriel Valley.

Thursday's extension brought the program to Bell Gardens, Downey, Paramount, Bellflower, Cerritos, Lakewood, Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and Signal Hill. Glendale and Burbank were also added.

Reiner said the program so far has obtained payments of $429,864.06 for checks that were returned to merchants for insufficient funds and has paid its own expenses since February through a $25 charge for each bad check.

Test of Program

Los Angeles is one of five Southern California counties authorized by the Legislature to test the program, which departs from usual criminal procedure by eliminating police involvement and allowing the district attorney's office to charge the accused for its expenses.

The program is geared toward bad checks, rather than professional forgeries, and is designed to relieve police departments of the burden of investigating numerous complaints involving small or moderate amounts of money, said Capt. Ed Aleks, investigator for the district attorney's office.

"What we're basically dealing with is a niche market," Aleks said. "The police departments want to handle big check cases, the felony cases. We're handling the little ones. They stack up on the officers' desks because they can't deal with them right away."

Merchants who want to use the program must first contact the district attorney's office for a form that they return with the bounced checks. The district attorney then sends a computer-generated letter similar to those used by collection agencies, Aleks said.

Prima Facie Case

Unlike the usual collection letter, however, this one informs the check writer that the district attorney has a "strong prima facie case that a crime has been committed," Aleks said.

The letter offers an alternative to prosecution--a four-hour weekend course in personal bookkeeping and ethics at the student's expense plus the $25 charge, Aleks said.

So far, the writers of about a third of the 12,280 checks turned in by merchants have paid their debts and gone to class, Aleks said.

Some of the check writers are never found and others, because of extenuating circumstances, are allowed time to repay their debts.

"We don't try to pretend that every check that comes to us we collect," Aleks said. "Some people don't return our letters. If the facts aren't there, we send it back to the victim and recommend civil action. A number are still under investigation."

Criminal complaints have been filed against about 250 people who refused to comply and of those, about 150 were arrested in two "bad-check sweeps." All pleaded guilty, Aleks said.

The district attorney began the program in the east San Gabriel Valley in October, 1986, and expanded it west to Pasadena and south to the Orange County border last August.

In its initial 21 months, the program handled 5,686 cases. In addition to nearly half a million dollars in check payments, it has collected $89,712 in charges for administrative costs and $77,281 for class fees.

Receipts returned to merchants have grown steadily from under $2,000 in the first quarter to more than $14,000 in the most recent quarter.

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